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Diva by Definition

What makes a prima donna want to sink her teeth into one role more than another? PATRICK DILLON ponders the question.

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Illustrations by Amy Ning
© Amy Ning 2012
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© Amy Ning 2012

"Diva" made a surprisingly tardy debut in the lexicon of opera. Though in its original sense of "goddess" the word predates the Caesars, the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first appearance in English to 1883, in a Harper's Magazine reference to "the latest diva of the drama." Four years later, in French, Victorien Sardou applied the word to his fictional Roman prima donna, Floria Tosca, in a fawning letter she reads aloud from Paisiello, the supposed composer of the hastily put-together cantata he's asking her to perform: "Need I add, diva, that this improvisation will lack a certain merit unless you lend to it your prestigious talent?" A decade after that, in Italian, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa offered Puccini what may be the term's first mention in an opera text: "The cantata still lacks its diva," Scarpia notes at the start of Act II. And a century and change later, Puccini's Tosca rightfully remains the quintessential diva role. Others may have preceded her, but under that handle it was she who got there first. 

What, exactly, constitutes a "diva role"? Let's look at some reliable tip-offs.

spacer   She literally is a diva. In 1902, Francesco Cilèa immortalized a real-life "goddess" of the eighteenth-century Comédie-Française in Adriana Lecouvreur. "Diva!" the Abbé of Chazeuil exclaims at her entrance — and ecco,Adriana (despite her protestation that she's art's humble servant) is second only to Tosca in the diva-role pantheon. Leoncavallo's Zazà, two years older and a lot less genteel, is a music-hall star — a diva in the modern pop sense of the word. And while the word's Latin derivation may lead to a plethora of Italian roles so classified, it wasn't long before Richard Strauss gave them a German cousin, the Prima Donna/Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos — a role that, when fully encompassed, ranks as the best diva auf Deutsch. 

spacer   She's wearing a crown or carrying a wand. Long before the OED's formal nod, there were diva roles aplenty. Handel's Cleopatra (a queen) and Alcina (a sorceress) certainly qualify, though neither was meant to fully dominate "her" opera; Lully and Rameau, Gluck and Spontini, too, wrote many a diva-worthy role. Inspired by Isabella Colbran, his favored prima donna onstage and off, Rossini penned his Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Armida and Semiramide; and Donizetti tailored his Tudor trifecta — Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux — for three of his era's reigning prime donne. Berlioz created two diva roles, Cassandre and Didon, within a single opera, Les Troyens, and their diva status is compounded when, in the same performance, one singer tackles both, as Régine Crespin used to do, and as Shirley Verrett and Jessye Norman did memorably at the Met. All these blue-blooded ladies are grand creatures who suffer deeply, seldom without a submissive cape to wave in imperious agitation. Death is all but a given — though if, like that of most operatic Queen Elizabeths, their suffering is suitably profound, the tragic demise needn't be their own. 

spacer  She's got religion (but it hurts). For the great lyric tragedienne Giuditta Pasta, Bellini created the greatest of nineteenth-century diva roles — Norma, the peccant high priestess in excelsis. But Spontini was a quarter-century ahead with his straying Vestal virgin, Giulia, in La Vestale. (It's notable that the twentieth century's two most celebrated Giulias were its two most famous Normas: Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas.) Puccini's Suor Angelica is a case in reverse: she found sex before she found religion. But Massenet's Thaïs trumps her by having had lots of sex — in fact, sex was her profession — before embracing the veil. 

spacer  She's got great style. Bad-girl Thaïs owns some fancy clothes and jewels — and if she's played by Renée Fleming, even her nun's habit is designed by Christian Lacroix. The Marschallin may start in a nightie, but she ends up in plumed grandeur and boasts the added perk of an onstage hairdresser. 

spacer   She can work a staircase. Turandot — ideally sporting an elaborate jeweled headdress and trailing a train the length of the Great Wall of China — intimidates her gentleman callers from "a great marble stair whose summit disappears among lacy arches." Loony Lucia, less formal, rules the Ashton staircase in her bloody nightclothes, menacing her wedding guests with sharp objects. More happily, Arabella has two big staircase entrances and — uniquely, I think — gets to make a diva prop of a simple glass of water. 

spacer   She can work a fan. The right props and accoutrements can make for diva magic. On tour with the Bolshoi in 1975, Elena Obraztsova conquered New York with a wave of a giant feather fan and elevated Marina in Boris Godunov to diva status. (The volcanic voice didn't hinder the conquest.) But divas, beware: a fan can also be used by a stage-savvy rival to undermine your big moment, as Renata Scotto found out when Fiorenza Cossotto strategically dropped hers during Scotto's big Act III monologue in Adriana — an acute case of "the prima donna complex," as Scotto astutely diagnosed in her humbly named memoir, More Than a Diva.  

spacer   She's got a real-life-prima-donna seal of approval. The right singer can give a role its diva aura; and at the Met, a lioness's share was introduced by just three sopranos in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. The glamorous Lina Cavalieri was the company's first Fedora, Adriana and Manon Lescaut. Geraldine Farrar, her flamboyant American counterpart, became Butterfly and Suor Angelica, Thaïs, Zazà and Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne. And as Farrar retired, in came a diva more extroverted than either — Maria Jeritza, whose Marie/Marietta in Die Tote Stadt was followed by another plush Korngold heroine, Violanta, along with Puccini's Turandot, Wolf-Ferrari's Maliella (in I Gioielli della Madonna)and Strauss's Egyptian Helen. Jeritza easily exerted her diva clout by cajoling from Giulio Gatti-Casazza stagings of Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio and Donna Juanita — after all, Viennese operetta, like verismo opera, is rife with star turns. (Anyone who's watched Anna Netrebko work her disarming wiles in "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss" must nurture hopes for a belated Met premiere of Lehár's Giuditta.)And though they created none of the roles in question, the latter-day careers of two of the twentieth century's iconic sopranos provide an easy short list of diva vehicles. Maria Callas's last five years on the opera stage were spent playing just three strong-willed women — Norma, Tosca and Cherubini's Medea. Magda Olivero, whose voice and career endured far longer, favored Adriana, Tosca, Fedora, and Elle in Poulenc's LaVoix Humaine,all of which showcased her canny control of dynamics and dramatic accenti and her mastery of the parlando effects divas so adore.

spacer   She's no team player. There's a good reason for all the title roles on this list — and for the absence of opera's Holy Trinity, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. Early on, Mozart composed any number of staggeringly difficult arias for his sopranos, but tough music alone does not a diva role make; and the soprano roles of his maturity form — at least ideally — part of a balanced ensemble. The Mozart lady with the highest diva quotient is poised midway in his career — Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a noble but spirited sufferer who can make or break this deceptively difficult singspiel. Wagner's Frauen are either too good-girl passive or too dependent on a counterbalancing leading man. There's one big exception — Kundry, who gets to groan, grumble and grovel in tatters, turn bejeweled seductress in a magical garden and finally revert to rags for some potent penitential emoting. With the occasional vocal stridency expected, Kundry offers a tempting histrionic plate for an ambitious dramatic soprano or mezzo, and in the pope-pious Parsifal she's got a fairly easy meal to steal. Verdi's early "galley" operas offer some divine opportunities, but it's no accident that they're not titled Abigaille or Lady Macbeth; and his mature operas, like Mozart's, need balance to achieve full bloom. Again, it's a mid-career heroine to whom I'd give pride of place — Leonora in La Forza del Destino. In this very episodic opera, she needn't rely on others for her big moments to click; and she gets to love, suffer, sin, repent, pray, curse, waste away, die in her lost lover's arms and (according to her father confessor) ascend to heaven, in a sartorial gamut of skirts, pants and monastic robes. 

spacer  She's not wearing trousers. With occasional exceptions such as Leonora and her near-namesake in Beethoven's Fidelio — women disguised as men — trousers just won't do: Farrar may have enjoyed donning Cherubino's britches, and Jeritza Octavian's, but a diva can't be fully a diva when she's playing a boy. 

spacer  She's become a diva magnet. Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites gives an object lesson — two, in fact — in the evolution of a diva vehicle. The central role of Blanche was written for the composer's muse Denise Duval, who sang it in the opera's French premiere, but Blanche is a timid, tentative thing and can't easily hold a stage full of gutsier ladies. From the opera's first year, though, Mme. Lidoine — the new prioress — proved a cozy showcase for divas-to-be: the later high repute of Leyla Gencer, Régine Crespin, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland (in, respectively, the opera's Italian, French, American and British premieres) made Lidoine de facto the opera's star soprano role. She's the nun with the big solo set piece, and when Price recorded it for her "Prima Donna" series, she surely enhanced the role's luster. Likewise, when both Price and Sutherland returned to the part late in their careers in their full stellar glory, Mme. Lidoine shone brighter still. Crespin's Carmelite career took a different path. When the opera had its Met premiere in 1977, she moved from new prioress to old and gave the role of Mme. de Croissy a diva status it hadn't enjoyed before; it became a cherished calling card of her last decade onstage. "Her death scene had the sort of manic power that one associates with Chaliapin or Bernhardt," wrote Patrick O'Connor in her Guardian obituary in 2007. Which brings us to an apt conclusion….

spacer  She's got a chewy death scene.  A glance at the passings of two Manons shows why some roles score higher diva points than others. While Massenet's Manon, thoroughly French, suffers with quiet poignancy, endearingly admiring the "diamond" in the sky, Puccini's indulges in fortissimo self-pity, con disperazione. "Tu soffri?" her solicitous lover inquires. "Orribilmente!" she replies, never one to underplay an emotion. Her star may have fallen, but her pain is lofty. And suffering on a grand scale is what sets her apart from her French counterpart, or from her Puccinian sister Mimì. On a good night in the opera house, a diva's going is seldom gentle. spacer 

PATRICK DILLON, a longtime New Yorker, is a regular correspondent for Opera Canada and Scherzo (Madrid)

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Current Issue: July 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 1